Tuesday, May 31, 2011

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Bona Fide Funny

by Thomas Delapa

How to describe O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers' latest wild and wooly film fantasy? Ostensibly based on Homer's Odyssey, it attempts to do for the deep South what Fargo did for the upper Midwest, only in a far lighter vein. It may be the only movie to combine Greek myth, bluegrass music, a biblical flood and a Ku Klux Klan rally.

The gods must be smiling on the Coens, for somehow this wacky extravaganza works.

I may live to regret saying this, but I take back almost everything I've said about George Clooney's acting abilities. Discarding his stolid, tough-guy roles, Clooney dusts off a bright, charming comic personality to go along with his matinee-idol good looks.

Clooney plays Ulysses Everett McGill, one of three prisoners who escape a Mississippi chain gang during the Depression 1930s. With him are his dim, down-home cohorts, Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (the wild-eyed John Turturro). As incentive to escape, Everett promises the other two a share of the million dollars he's hidden away from a robbery.

After the Odyssey, the brothers Joel and Ethan take the idea of a husband trekking home to claim his wife after years away. But the Coens also borrow from Sullivan's Travels, Preston Sturges' 1942 screwball comedy which told of a Hollywood director who hobnobs as a hobo to research his upcoming human-interest drama called Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

You don't need to know Greek to enjoy the misadventures of this trio. Blessed with the gift of pedantic gab, Everett is a cheery optimist who's obsessive about his brand--Dapper Dan--of hair gel. When it comes to winning back the wife (Holly Hunter) who's disowned him, he insists, "But I'm the pater familias" in a manner that suggests Bugs Bunny crossed with Clark Gable.

Clooney's ably supported by Nelson and Turturro as his partners in grime and ex-crime. The dumbest of the bunch, Delmar postulates that Pete was turned into a toad during a close encounter with a threesome of sultry sirens along a riverbank.

Along with Roger Deakins' glowing, golden-hued cinematography is a toe-tapping sprinkling of old folk favorites as the score. Once the boys wander in to a recording studio and serendipitously sing "Man of Constant Sorrow" accompanied a black guitar player (Chris Thomas King), unknown to them they become a sensation on the airwaves. Toward the end, they get to reprise their hit in rambunctious hootenanny wearing false beards.

O Brother might have been better had it ended with its gleeful musical finale. Instead, the Coens bother to add on a deus ex machina flood that washes away some of the buoyant momentum.

Nonetheless, after the big letdown of The Big Lebowski, the Coens are back on top in this terrifically odd but uplifting Depression odyssey.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly, 1-18-01

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